Prior to The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead Theatre, I'd seen two plays directed by Katie Mitchell. The first, ...some trace of her, took my breath away and the second, A Woman Killed With Kindness, made me angry at Mitchell.
She is certainly a director that divides opinion and in a way, I like that because it makes for a far easier review.
Sitting down to watch The Trial of Ubu I knew nothing about it, let alone its roots in the absurdest play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry which in 1896 caused riots. The audience of the time weren't quite ready for Jarry's crude and cutting satire on power, greed and evil with the first word spoken his own variation of the French word for shit.
I can certainly see what attracted Katie Mitchell to directing Simon Stephen's play. There is, after all, a lot to get your teeth into with absurdity and the surreal. But was this a 'trace' or a 'kindness'?
*This is quite a detailed description of the play, some of which may be deemed as spoilers*
Well as the title suggests the play is about a trial but we have to know the crimes levelled at Ubu first and this is how the story starts. The Hampstead theatre stage has been wood-panelled off from the audience, floor to ceiling, and as the lights dim a small rectangle about two thirds the way up the panelling, in the centre opens up, sort of like a serving hatch or in this case space for a puppet show.
A set of grotesque Punch and Judy-esque puppets tell the story of Ubu who has his King murdered, seizes the thrown and then lets power go to his head murdering and torturing anyone who gets in his way or doesn't like or even just for fun.
It is very well done and an inspired decision not only a firm nod to Jarry absurdist source material but also a powerful medium for the subject matter. Yes puppets. The child-like story-telling sits as uncomfortably with the subject matter as the behaviour of Ubu sits with common human morality and principles.
When the rein of Ubu - an embodiment of as many dictators you can care to recall (or Tony Blair as @MrBrianHolmes suggested) - comes to an end the puppet show is over and a new one begins, one without puppets: his trial in an international criminal court.
While the puppet show was loud and brash and crude, this is understated and matter of fact. The horror and absurdity of the events are served up on an entirely different plate. Naturally we get some of Mitchell's signature speeding up and slowing down of the performance. The former works really well as we speed through huge chunks of the lengthy trial with the two translators in a silent fast forward mode. It is very well done by Amuku-Bird and Duchene.
At breaks in the proceedings two further spaces are exposed either side of the translators room giving Mitchell room to show off how she can have two scenes happening simultaneously at opposite sides of the stage. Something she did a lot with Kindness and which I find a little irritating.
In one we see the aged Ubu (Paul Mccleary complete with Heath Ledger/Joker style clown make-up) with his jailer (Rob Ostlere) in a cell trying to make conversation. In the other we see the counsel for the defence (Josie Dexter) and prosecutor (George Taylor) having a fag break and discussing whether justice is really being done.
I can see why these scenes are here, to break up those with the translators but I'm not sure what they add other than to tell you what you already know. The absurdity of the trial is that while one man is apparently being brought to justice, he didn't act alone. Those committing atrocities and seemingly enjoying it, in Ubu's name, are brought in as witnesses for the prosecution describing horrific acts that they have committed and then walk free.
When Jarry wrote Ubu Roi he was a teenager exposing what he saw as the tyranny of his school teachers, Simon Stephens has given it a nice modern twist, using the idea to examine how justice can be carried out when the crimes are so appalling in content and scale.
The Trial of Ubu didn't quite take my breath away as ...some trace of her did but it shows Mitchell on fine form putting on innovative and imaginative productions where the style and medium is just as important as the content.
Although I must add that I think I'm over the whole slow-mo/fast-mo performance technique. The faster bits worked here but the interpreters taking off and putting on there headphones slowly every time just got boring.
This was a preview performance and the pace did flag a little at times (these sort of things inevitably tighten up) but overall I thought it was really interesting, imaginative and memorable piece of theatre. I'm going to give it four stars.
The Trial of Ubu runs at the Hampstead Theatre until February 25.
Feel like Katie Mitchell is a bit of an easy one as Mr W was in ...some trace of her, so just for a bit of work, Nikki Amuku-Bird was in the film Coriolanus with Paul Jesson who was in Cock with Mr W